When it comes to the Indians and their pitching staff, 2019 has certainly been the Year of the Bieber. The All-Star Game MVP has realized basically all the potential that the wisest of us saw in him last year, and the Indians are so confident in him that they traded Trevor Bauer last week. He’s great. But this isn’t about Bieber. This is about Mike Clevinger, who did that whole “realize the potential” thing last season.
Despite a stint on the IL this year, he’s been even better than we saw in 2018. In fact, there’s plain evidence he’s been the best pitcher the Indians have for about a year now.
With the caveat that his only thrown 122 innings since the beginning of last August, 50 fewer than Bauer and 90 fewer than Bieber, Clevinger has been scintillating. Over the last calendar year he leads the Tribe in ERA at 2.58, K rate at 32.1%, batting average against at .193 (which also ranks third in all of baseball in the last year), and heck, he’s even second in wins, if that’s something you care about. These are all “tops in the Majors” type of numbers, so not only has he been good for the Tribe, he’s just been amazing in general. In fact, that ERA ranks fourth in baseball, the strikeout rate seventh, the batting average fourth. Calling a guy unhittable is high praise, and he’s certainly earned it.
He’s never really had his time in the sun, despite the nickname, simply because when he really broke out last year Bauer was in the process of overclocking everything about his own repertoire. Then this year he got hurt for a bit while Bieber has been doing his thing en route to Cleveland for All-Star honors. But he’s been great, and been turning into a pitcher while doing it. My personal touchstone of the shift from thrower to pitcher revolves around fastball usage, and it being subsumed by other pitches. Or more specifically, once a guy finds a way to throw a fastball less than half the time and really work those sequences - even going whole at-bats without using the fastball - the evolution from thrower to pitcher has truly begun in earnest. It’s simplistic certainly, but it’s a quick and dirty way to see that a pitcher has evolved their repertoire. This year is the first time in his career that we’ve seen Clevinger throw non-fastballs more than half the time:
Despite his cracking 97 mph or so on the gun, Clevinger has found the real way to knock down hitters. Bieber is the same way in his pitch mix after a rookie year around 57% four-seamers, perhaps fast-tracking on a Bauer-driven path to pitcher. As with seemingly everyone else in baseball, it’s the slider that’s been Clev’s secondary tool, and for good reason. It ranks 15th among all starters since last August in strikeout rate, and paired with an increasingly elite fastball, which at 96 mph on average tops all Indians and ranks 17th among all starters, you have a one-two pitch that is simply savage. Never mind that great 12-6 curve that continues to improve, worth 2.1 pitching runs by FanGraphs’ pitch value in this one year time frame. He’s throwing it more than ever too, so it’s not just a sample size thing. His change-up is fine too. Even fine is good though, if it’s just tertiary.
It certainly hurts in the near term to lose a pitcher of Trevor Bauer’s considerable talents. But between Bieber’s emergence and Clevinger being the team’s ace when he’s healthy without anyone even noticing, it’s one of the many reasons the Tribe can shrug it off and keep going. This is not what he was supposed to be — meaning one of the elite pitchers in baseball — but who cares what’s supposed to happen? Whether by his own hard work, the developmental structure of the team or some combination of that and luck, it’s what reality is.
Two years ago if someone told you the Indians’ two headed monster would be Bieber and Clevinger, with Clev the lead guy, you’d be called crazy. Well, let’s be crazy.